Alaska Railroad Aurora Winter Train: Great expectations for cold-weather family fun

I love spending time ‘on the couch’ with KTVA 11’s Daybreak program each month. Sharing the best in Alaska family travel experiences makes my day, and the good company of hosts James Gaddis and Megan Mazurek make it even better. A few weeks ago, I spent an entire segment talking about the Alaska Railroad, one of our favorite ways to get around our state. Here’s the synopsis of that segment, that aired on Thursday, November 6, 2014 (find the entire segment, complete with amazing photos and my witty commentary, HERE): 

True confession: Winter is my favorite season, which is a good thing, because an Alaska winter can drag on for weeks and weeks despite what the calendar might say. Even though our weather patterns seem a little mixed up thus far, I have no doubt the snow will pick up before too long, which means a gaggle of kids will be ready to strap on skis or snowshoes for a bit of outdoor family fun. And that’s where the Alaska Railroad Aurora Winter Train comes in.

Truly, the combination of snow and recreation gets to the core of why we love Alaska, and for families, winter opens up unique destinations and opportunities a visitor won’t necessarily find during the non-snow months. Serving as a connector between Fairbanks and Anchorage, with a few special places in between, the Alaska Railroad runs consistently during the winter, but with a bit of an adjusted schedule.

The Aurora Winter Train is the only passenger train in operation between October and May, traveling only north and south.  It’s an interesting timetable, but the trip, no matter how far you travel, is worth every minute of pre-journey navigation.

The Aurora Winter Train makes a turn near the Palmer-Wasilla area near sunrise.

The Aurora Winter Train makes a turn near the Palmer-Wasilla area near sunrise.

A bluebird day, a lot of snow, and a trip on the train. What could be better?

A bluebird day, a lot of snow, and a trip on the train. What could be better?

Schedule: The train departs Anchorage on Saturday mornings at 8:30, heading NORTH. Then, it returns to Anchorage on Sunday, traveling South, reaching Anchorage around 8 p.m.

Wait – does this mean a family must travel to Fairbanks for a week? No, no; there are options. Take the train to Fairbanks (a 12-hour trip, however) on Saturday. Play in Fairbanks over a long weekend, then fly home on Alaska Airlines, an excellent way to avoid 24 hours of train travel with smaller children.

A second itinerary travels North from Anchorage to Talkeetna, staying overnight at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, partaking in one of the Roadhouse’s pie-making classes or holiday cookie-decorating parties, or skiing, snowshoeing, and receiving a heavy dose of relaxation. This three- hour trip reaches Talkeetna in time for lunch and outdoor fun on Saturday, then the train picks you up at 4:50 Sunday afternoon, arriving in Anchorage at 8 p.m.

Another option: Wait until February 24 through March 18, 2015. During that time, the Alaska Railroad is offering midweek departures in addition to the weekend schedule. So, you can head north from Anchorage on Tuesday, play for a few days, then either fly home or take the train back on Sunday. Same thing for Fairbanksans; take the train South on Wednesday toward Anchorage, returning Saturday to the Golden Heart City, or anywhere in between.

What will you get? Amazing views of Denali, frozen rivers, a million moose or more, and very classy service from Alaska Railroad conductors and crew. Trains are seldom crowded, the dining cars are serving meals, and it’s a great way to spend a few hours as a family.

Bring… Lots of amusements for the kids. Tablets, music, books, games, snacks, anything you think you might need to keep youngsters happy, but I’ll tell you, conductors do a pretty good job of making kids feel welcome.

Cost: Ranges from $67/adults, $34/kids from Anchorage – Talkeetna, and on up to $179/adults, $90/kids from Anchorage – Fairbanks, one way. If you want a round-trip during the February/March departures between Anchorage and Fairbanks, fares will be much, much lower, $230/adults, $115/kids. “Kids” are age 2-11, by the way.

Let’s chop-choo-choose the Alaska Railroad this winter!

Sometimes, conductors find cool things on the tracks during Aurora Winter Train adventures. Like moose antlers!

Sometimes, conductors find cool things on the tracks during Aurora Winter Train adventures. Like moose antlers!

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